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French government to debate GM policy

By Laura Crowley
07/01/2008- France's environmental policy will be discussed in a hearing at the Senate tomorrow in the lead up to a vote on whether or not to extend the country's temporary ban on genetically modified (GM) crops.

Last October, President Sarkozy put into place a moriatum on the commercial cultivation of GM maize, meaning no new crops could be planted until the country's biotech position is made clear.

The ban is due to come to an end in February, by which time a decision is expected to be announced.

The temporary ban was part of a package of measures intended to make France greener and a new expert group on the subject was set up to decide on the country's environmental policy, sparking reactions from French activists.

The anti-GM lobby in France is powerful. Farmer activist Jose Bove launched a hunger strike last week with 15 supporters, saying he would not eat again until the government imposes a year-long ban on genetically modified crops.

Last year he was convicted of ripping up GM crops when he stormed Monsanto's facilities in southern France with up to 75 other protestors to campaign against the French import and distribution of GM maize seed.

At the same time however, genetic research continues to thrive with institutes such as CIRAD carrying out some of the most advanced biotech research in Europe. Research into genetic modification was not affected by Sarkozy's ban.

The only GM maize currently approved for cultivation in France is Monsanto's MON810, which was approved by the EU in 1998.

The maize contains a gene that defends the crop against the European corn borer, an insect pest that eats the stem, present primarily in southern and middle Europe but moving northwards.

The cultivation of GM crops in Europe increased by 77 per cent in 2007, according to figures released by the biotech industry association EuropaBio.

Over 110,000 hectares of biotech crops were harvested in seven EU member states, compared to 62,000 hectares in 2006.

French GM crop cultivation experienced the greatest increase in Europe, quadrupling in size from 5,000 hectares in 1996 to over 21,000 hectares last year.

One of the main concerns regarding GM crops is that pollination could cross-contaminate non-GM crops grown in the vicinity - and that ultimately the long-term health effects of GM on humans are not known.

It is recommended that the distance between GM and non-GM crops should be 50 metres, which is twice that required for coexistence of conventional crops.

Moreover, although the growers' association AGPM says that in the natural environment maize does not cross-pollinate with any other plant, information should be given to all maize growers whose crops may be near plots of GM maize.

Austria enforced a ban on the import and processing of MON810 and T25 maize in June 1999, expressing concern about the effects on non-target organisms and the development of resistance to toxins by target organisms.

The European Commission has been debating whether to force the country to lift its restrictions since 2005, when the first proposal to force Austria to retract its ban was rejected by the Environment Council.

In November 2005, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ordered Europe's ban be lifted following a case brought by leading GMO producers Argentina, Canada and the US under claims that their farmers were losing millions of euros annually because of the EU.

The WTO had previously faulted the EU for undue delay in approving GMO products for a four-year period ending in 2003 and accused a number of member states of maintaining unjustified bans on those products already considered safe in Europe.

The EU is now due to decide on whether Austria will have to end its ban by the end of this week.
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